New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (7-8) at Atlanta Falcons (10-5)

In a league with so few top level teams, it’s surprising that the Falcons aren’t getting more Super Bowl hype. They rank 3rd in the NFL in point differential and 2nd in first down rate differential and are 10-5 despite a 3-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their defense has major problems, especially with top cornerback Desmond Trufant out for the season, but their offense has been far and away the best in the league this season, even ahead of the Dallas Cowboys.

They’ve picked up a first down or a touchdown on an outstanding 43.48% of snaps this season, while the Cowboys, who are 2nd best in that metric, have done so on “just” 40.86% of snaps. For comparison, there’s a bigger gap between the #1 ranked team in first down rate and the #2 ranked team than there is between the #2 and #6 ranked teams. The Falcons are not a well-rounded team, but their offense is so dominant that it might not matter, especially in a year where few teams are standing out.

That being said, the Saints are also an underrated team and I think we’re getting good line value with them, as this line is at a full touchdown. The Saints actually rank tied for 4th in the NFL in offensive touchdown margin, with 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents, only behind New England, Dallas, and Atlanta, who has a +11 offensive touchdown margin. They also have a +41 first down margin, which is 3rd best in the NFL, and they rank 7th in first down rate differential. They are just 7-8 as a result of because of a -4 return touchdown differential and 6 losses by 6 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer.

The Saints lost to the Falcons 45-32 in New Orleans earlier this year, but actually had 32 first downs to 26 for the Falcons in that game and it would have been a much closer game if not for two New Orleans turnovers, including one returned 90 yards for a touchdown. Outside of those 2 snaps, it was a pretty evenly matched game. That loss actually puts the Saints in a good betting spot this week, as comparable divisional rivals tend to split the season series, even if the road team pulls the upset in the first game. Divisional road underdogs are 61-35 ATS since 2002 in same season divisional revenge games against an opponent that previously beat them as home favorites and they also pull the upset and win straight up about half the time.

These two teams aren’t quite comparable and it would be a bigger play if I didn’t think so highly of the Falcons, but the Saints are definitely an underrated team that can keep this one close. Aside from their first matchup with the Falcons, which was closer than the final score suggested, the Saints have just one other loss by more than a touchdown all season and I don’t expect the Falcons to make it three this week. If you can get the full touchdown with the Saints, this is worth a bet.

Atlanta Falcons 31 New Orleans Saints 27

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +7

Confidence: Medium

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Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (9-6) at Detroit Lions (9-6)

I always talk about the inconsistency of turnover margins and why using past turnover margins as evidence for predictions of future turnover margins is basically useless. The Packers are a great example of that. Through the first 12 games of the season, the Packers were -5 in turnover margin on the season, but over the past 3 weeks they are +12. Unfortunately for them, that works both ways and teams that have a +12 turnover margin or better over a 3 game span, on average, have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week. Despite their recent run to put them in position to win the NFC North, the Packers rank just 12th in first down rate differential.

The Lions, meanwhile, rank just 27th in that metric, despite their 9-6 record, and actually have a -5 point differential on the season, as 8 of their 9 victories have come by a touchdown or less. That’s why this isn’t a bigger bet on Detroit, but we’re still getting great line value with them as 3.5 point home underdogs. This line suggests the Packers are about 6.5 points better than Detroit, which don’t make sense. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, so the Lions have plenty of room to cover even if they don’t win this game straight up. The Packers are just 2-5 ATS on the road this season anyway, with losses in Minnesota, Atlanta, Tennessee, and Washington, so I really don’t understand this line. Even just 2 weeks ago, the Packers won by just a field goal in Chicago and that was despite winning the turnover margin by 4, something they’re far from guaranteed to do again this week. If you can get more than a field goal, Detroit is worth a bet.

Green Bay Packers 31 Detroit Lions 30

Pick against the spread: Detroit +3.5

Confidence: Medium

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Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (3-12) at Minnesota Vikings (7-8)

The Bears are 3-12, but have played a lot better than their record, as they have 4 more first downs than their opponents on 42 fewer plays and rank 11th in first down rate differential. How is that possible? Well, 6 of their 12 losses have come by a touchdown or less, including 3 losses by a field goal or less, and they have a -16 turnover margin, tied for 2nd worst in the league. Fortunately for them, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent and unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, which is why I prefer other statistics.

They’ve dealt with a lot of injuries, but that hasn’t stopped them from going 4-1-1 ATS in their last 6 games. Last week was their one non-cover, a 41-21 home loss to the Washington Redskins, but that was primarily because they lost the turnover margin by 5. They actually gained 31 first downs on 67 plays, just the 9th team this season to have more than 30 first downs in a game. They were also just the 3rd team since 1989 to have more than 30 first downs in a game and lose by 20 or more points. The week before they had 29 first downs, but lost by a field goal because of a -4 turnover margin.

As I mentioned though, this kind of thing is inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. For example, the Bears were -7 in turnover margin through the first 13 games of the regular season before going -9 in the past 2 weeks. Since 1989, 33 teams have had a turnover margin of -9 across a two game stretch. The following week, those 33 teams had an average turnover margin of -0.2. If we assume turnover neutral football for them in this game, which we should always assume, they have a great chance of covering this 6 point spread against a Minnesota team that ranks just 24th in first down rate differential.

Minnesota Vikings 19 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Chicago +6

Confidence: High

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New York Giants at Washington Redskins: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

New York Giants (10-5) at Washington Redskins (8-6-1)

I typically don’t like to bet on teams that are expected to rest their starters, but I’m making an exception here because, even though this line suggests the Giants are going to rest their starters and they don’t have anything to play for locked into the 5th seed, Giants head coach Ben McAdoo said that the Giants plan to play to win this game, suggesting they won’t be resting their starters. That makes some sense because, after last week’s loss in Philadelphia, the Giants might not want to head into the post-season on a 2-game losing streak with no momentum to speak of.

Perhaps the oddsmakers know something I don’t about McAdoo’s plans that hasn’t been revealed publicly, as they have the Giants as 7.5 point road underdogs in Washington, but I would have had this line as a pick ‘em in normal circumstances so we get more than a touchdown to work with if the Giants do surprisingly pull the starters at halftime or something. The Giants have been the better team this year (9th in first down rate differential vs. 23rd) and they’re in a revenge game after losing at home as favorites to the Redskins earlier this year.

Comparable divisional rivals tend to split the season series, even if the road team pulls the upset in the first game. Divisional road underdogs are 61-35 ATS since 2002 in same season divisional revenge games against an opponent that previously beat them as home favorites and they also pull the upset and win straight up about half the time. If the Giants play their starters all game, they could easily pull the upset and I think it’s worth betting on them as 7.5 point underdogs given Ben McAdoo’s comments this week.

Washington Redskins 23 New York Giants 20

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +7.5

Confidence: Medium

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Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (13-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-9)

I almost never bet on teams that are expected to rest their starters for some or most of a game in week 17 because it’s too unpredictable. In this game, the Cowboys are expected to start their starters, but how long they play is a complete mystery with the #1 seed already locked up. This line expects their backups to play a lot as they are 5 point underdogs in Philadelphia in a game in which they likely would have been favored by 5 points if their starters were going to play the whole game.

The Cowboys have been one of the best teams in the league this season, particularly on the road, where they are 5-2 ATS (31-23 ATS since 2010), so they could easily jump out to a 10-0 or 14-0 lead with their starters out there and cover this spread even with Mark Sanchez and company playing most of the game, but I’m not going to bet anything on it, especially since the Eagles are an underrated team that has top offensive lineman Lane Johnson back from suspension and is 6-9 despite a 1-6 record in games decided by a touchdown or less.

Philadelphia Eagles 23 Dallas Cowboys 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas +5

Confidence: Low

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Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (9-5-1) at San Francisco 49ers (2-13)

The Seahawks are typically a very good team in the 2nd half of the regular season under Pete Carroll, going 34-12-1 ATS since Carroll’s first season in 2011 in games 9-16 of the regular season. This year they’ve been 4-3 ATS in the 2nd half of the regular season, but that’s largely because they’ve been overrated for most of the season. In the first half of the regular season, they covered the spread in just two games, squeaking out close victories as big favorites against the Dolphins, Bills, and Falcons, losing to the Saints and Rams in upset fashion, and tying the Cardinals in a game that had an even line. They only covered the spread in big victories over the Jets and these 49ers, two of the worst teams in the league. In the second half of the season, they’ve pulled the upset in New England and gotten big victories over the Eagles, Panthers, and Rams, though they’ve also lost as favorites against the Cardinals, Packers, and Buccaneers. Still, they’ve definitely been a better team in the second half of the season again.

After last week’s home loss to the Cardinals, it doesn’t seem like the Seahawks are overrated anymore. The Cardinals are an underrated team that has won the first down rate battle in 13 of 15 games and that could easily be 10-5 or even 11-4 if they didn’t blow 5 close games with special teams mistakes, but that home loss has moved this line 3 points from 12.5 on the early line last week to 9.5 this week, a significant line movement. The 49ers pulled off a close victory against the terrible Rams last week, but that was just their 2nd victory of the season and prior to that win that had lost 13 straight by an average of 15.23 points per game, including 9 losses by double digits. The Seahawks should be able to make that 10 losses by double digits, though there’s not quite enough here for me to bet money on them.

Seattle Seahawks 23 San Francisco 49ers 10

Pick against the spread: Seattle -9.5

Confidence: Low

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Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (6-8-1) at Los Angeles Rams (4-11)

The Cardinals pulled the upset victory in Seattle last week, a shock to many people, considering they were 8 point underdogs. However, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, given that the Cardinals have played significantly better than their record this season. They’ve had 5 close losses (or ties) that would have been wins if not for special teams screw ups. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points.

They’ve actually won the first down rate battle in 13 of 15 games and rank 3rd in first down rate differential on the season. On the flip side, the lowly Rams rank 31st in first down rate differential. They pulled the upset in Arizona against the Cardinals earlier this year, but that was because the Cardinals lost the turnover battle by 4, which tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Even then, it took a late long punt return touchdown to set up the winning score for the Rams. The Cardinals actually won the first down battle by a wide margin, 26 to 12. Since then, the Rams have lost 10 of 11 games and have benched veteran starting quarterback Case Keenum for rookie Jared Goff, who has looked lost in limited action. Prior to last week’s close home loss to the lowly 49ers, the Rams had lost 4 straight games by 16 points or more. The Cardinals should be able to hand them another big loss this week. As long as this line is less than a touchdown, Arizona is worth a bet.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Los Angeles Rams 13

Pick against the spread: Arizona -6.5

Confidence: Medium

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